A superfluous man - a music fan's journey
Chapter 1: As easy as Pye
In 1975, Richard Digance persuaded his manager Jazz Summers and record producer Tony Atkins, to record my version of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer with ace session musicians including Geoff Whitehorn on guitar and Simon Phillips on drums. Tony and Jazz were unsuccessful in placing it and, in 1977, I bought the master from them, with no clear idea of how to proceed. Kevin McPhillips arranged for me to take it to Pye Records. Pye was the label which brought us The Kinks, The Undertakers, Donovan, The Searchers, Status Quo, the mighty Lonnie Donegan (and Petula Clark and the Brotherhood of Man but, moving swifly on). Pyeís Alan McLaughlin listened, told me it wasn't a hit, but said I could leave the tape if I liked. I offered him instead the video made by Brighton Poly students and left pessimistically to meet Richard Digance for a post mortem burger.
I passed Pam Ayres in the street and she passed me - was this an omen? If so, of what? I 'phoned Kevin unenthusiastically to report. He responded excitedly that Pye were on the other line and liked the video. I was to get back there straight away. Pye's Peter Prince said he would release Rudolph ... and offered a contract. I was to record a 'B' side and begin an album as soon as possible. Jed Kearse, who had worked with my father in Potter's Music Shop in Aldershot in the early 1960s and was now a Pye A&R man/producer (he had just produced the very successful Muppets album), produced my session of four vocal/guitar tracks at Chappell's Studios, New Bond Street and selected (Incident at Hammersmith) Palais for the "B" side.
Jed arranged an introduction to Kay O'Dwyer at EMI Music Publishing and I landed a contract for my songs with her company. Pye produced an inaccurate Press Biography and I did my first radio interview at BBC Radio Brighton. It was an inauspicious start. The interviewer asked questions from the biography in the style "So, they tell me you were born in Farnham?"
"And you went to school in Weybridge?"
and so on for the allotted few minutes, with closed questions never permitting any expansive answer and the interviewer all the while making signals to someone in the production booth behind me. Soon, I couldn't even look at him across the desk. I was there to plug Rudolph but he said he wasn't going to play it (he said it was policy not to play Christmas records before 10 December). He let it be known that, as a favour, he would play the first ten seconds or so; and that was it. Then it was "Over to the bus garage..."
Kevin's quietly persistent approach with Radio 1 paid off and gradually Paul Burnett, Dave Lee Travis and others began to play it. Tony Blackburn did once and said it was the worst record he had heard all year. That generated my first fan letter from a listener from Yorkshire.
I took Dad to Southampton and Portsmouth for interviews on Southern Television and Radio Victory. Later, at Pye's Christmas party, I met The Fabulous Poodles, but we had little to say to each other. However, I had a good chat with the late Waxie Maxie from Charly Records. He was a quietly spoken man, who was easy to be with and very knowledgeable about his music.
Jed told me that Rudolph was 'nearly a hit'. Also around at that time and later to be number one, was another unusual Pye record, Matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs by Brian and Michael. They were also published by EMI and I met them in Kay's office. A friend's son, Roddy, had asked me to get the autograph of anyone famous I met. I asked Brian and Michael - I was really getting into this. Roddy hadnít heard of them.
In January 1978, with Tony Atkins producing at Pye Studios, Marble Arch, I recorded a vinyl album's worth (in the term's loosest sense) of songs I'd written. It was a thrill to get to the studio early each day and just sit there where The Kinks and The Who had recorded. Now it was a carpeted, wood-panelled, glass-doored, computerised, £600 a day, state-of-the-art environment. Strange to think it makes more money as a car park now. I took Dad for the first couple of days while we recorded rhythm tracks with Alan Jones (bass), Cliff Hall (keyboards) who were both on leave at that time from The Shadows, Pete Kircher (drums) from Honeybus and, later, Status Quo and Ricky Hitchcock (guitar), a busy session man.
The brass and wind arrangements were by Mike Bailey. Tony played Mike the tapes down the 'phone, but Mike didn't complete the arrangements until 4 am on the day of the session. This is apparently normal, as it means that the arranger is prevented from re-visiting what he's done. He brought the arrangements and handed them to a quiet young man who spread manuscript all over the floor and, with a succession of long roll-ups, copied and transposed at great speed. The brass and wind players arrived. They included Ronnie Ross (who didn't look as if he wished to discuss his solo on Lou Reed's Walk on the wild side) and the Gonzales horn section. They played their parts through once, while the transcriber listened for any mistakes, then he was off. It was embarrassing to consider the resources being devoted there to my throw away stuff. These sessions were more formal than those with the rhythm section, but I felt very optimistic about the finished product.
Pye didnít. They wanted to add strings to some tracks and to re-record others like His greatest hit to give a different "feel". This was more like work. The string players (all male) acted as if they were not really there. They wore their headphones perched away from their ears and near their foreheads, like off duty pneumatic drill operators. They kept up a constant stream of chatter from the time they arrived, through the producer's instruction 'Tape's rolling gentlemen' and the count of 'one' (yak, yak), 'two' (yak, yak, yak), 'three' (yak, yak). They ceased talking only on 'four' and all struck in together. They seemed rather cliquey, but perhaps shy. Backing vocals by the 'chick' singers were fun. The girls enjoyed the parodies and Linda Taylor gave her best Jane Birkin shot on A saucy French love song. However, I began to anticipate further problems when Kay's EMI colleague Harold Franz, listened to rough mixes and asked 'where's the hook?'
Mixing took four hands at times on the faders of the control panel. Where this involved memorising a lot of changes, Tony instructed the engineer to 'write it' and the mix was saved to a large floppy disk. However, even in that very regulated environment, the newly-installed computer was prone to overheat and we just had to wait. It took a day just to mix Twist and shout - perhaps five times as long as it took to record it with vocal, percussion and synthesiser overdubs.
Pye were still unhappy. Their objections included: "You can't release a song in French"; "the publishers won't let you mess up My way like that"; "you can't mention commercial products". Ere the year was out, there were top ten hits in French for Plastic Bertrand, of My wayfor Sid Vicious and for Tom Robinson mentioning a Ford Cortina. There was also later success for The Clash with a song about Hammersmith Palais. I was to feel that I'd missed a number of boats. Pye decided on a "live" album at Brighton Poly, with Jed producing and Ray Prickett (Lonnie Doneganís '50s hits, Max Miller's last gig, 'Stones in the Park' etc) engineering. It wasn't one of my best nights and Pye didnít like it.
With thirty or so "ligging" (as we called it then) Pye office staff, I was the audience for an Acker Bilk 'live' album'. Terry Brown producing, ordered me to make noise. There was cheap wine. I was glad when I'd had enough. Switching to cider was a mistake (don't try this at home). I became over-refreshed. It must have been a good evening, because next day I felt remorse. Remorse at leading the dancing with my overcoat; remorse at cheering (too) wildly; remorse at my incoherent responses to the polite questions of the delightful Lyn Paul from The New Seekers.
From the subsequently released LP, it was clear that Acker and his band played a fine set, but I shuddered to listen to my all too audible contribution (Terry had said he could control it). The record came back to haunt me at home, each time I flicked over it looking for something to play. It was only while writing this, that I remembered we had the LP Nuts which George Melly recorded 'live' at Ronnie Scott's, so I gave it another listen. Reproduced on the sleeve, is the drinks bill for 312 bottles of wine. A friend who was present at the Melly recording, reported excessive consumption by all. Despite this, Melly's audience sounds rather more restrained than Acker's. Acker's album is as is; there weren't as many of us in the audience and our drinks bill must have been much cheaper, so perhaps it wasn't as bad as I've thought all these years.
Pye released Rudolph(7N 46034) in 1977 and 1978. It was an "airplay" hit and made number 9 in Sounds magazine's Rock 'n' Roll chart (above Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran and Carl Perkins - what signals did this send to the record-buying public?). The chart was compiled by Smokey Joe's Cafe in New Malden and one afternoon, I called in there. It was nice to see the love which went into promoting classic rock 'n' roll. I was pleased to be able to buy Carl Perkins' Blue suede shoes.
RecipeĖ bring half a small pan of water to the boil. Submerge an egg and, at the same time, start playing Rudolph on your Hi-Fi. When the music stops, egg will be boiled to perfection. Place in egg cup. Open with knife/spoon indentations according to upbringing. Serve with soldiers.
Click here for Chapter 2: "A mighty good road".
Chapter: 10 Now is the hour
The Pye-prescribed re-recording of His Greatest Hit(7N 46083), which I thought inferior, was released in June 1978. I went to ATV Studios in Birmingham to promote it at the Pye sales conference. EMI Music came also and brought two BBC producers to see if I were suitable for a Saturday night series. They told me I was very funny, but obviously not original. I asked them where they'd heard the material before? They couldn't say. I asked if I would get the job. They looked embarrassed and said they were looking for someone more like Diana Ross.
Hit was well-reviewed by Melody Maker and elsewhere and Record of the Week for Bill Torrance on Radio Forth in Edinburgh; nevertheless it didn't quite live up to its title. It sold eighty copies - none in Edinburgh (what signals did this send from the record-buying public?). Kevin said it was ahead of its time, but I always thought that was a euphemism for 'not very good'. To promote His greatest hitI did an enjoyable radio interview with Tommy Vance. He played both my singles and a tape of The Original Flamenco from the 'forthcoming' album.
Jed Kearse of Pye introduced me to the Terry King Agency and I played the Marquee a couple of times. It was a thrill to be in that dressing 'room', which was more like an understairs cupboard, immediately behind the stage. You sat on a bench with the opposite wall slanting towards you and over your head, to wait to go on. It was like going down a narrow tunnel to get on stage and was easy to see why group members were introduced individually by John Gee in the 60s..
The Marquee was felt to be such a good showcase for acts, that the support was paid only £5. It was OK for me, but a band had to hire PA out of that and pay expenses. My only disappointment that night was that I lost a tape there which I'd recorded with the EMI house pianist, Ernie Ponticelli, who had been Gracie Fields' accompanist. The Marquee DJ played a new single The sultans of swing which I liked and bought, but it wasnít a hit. I arranged to go to see the band, Dire Straits, at Kings College, London. It was cancelled. The band went instead to America where the record was taking off. When they came back, they were stars. Sultans was re-released and was a hit. Dire Straits never played another college date and I never saw them, but didnít mind.
In November I flew to Edinburgh to play Heriot Watt University. Through the Pye rep, Dave Stevenson, I did the Saturday afternoon show on Radio Forth. At the end of the programme, I was pleasantly surprised when my old MoD boss, Jim Fallon, called the station to say "hello". Later, the Studentsí Union required me to give an undertaking that I would not include sexist material in my act. The gig was lively. There was no stage and the audience crushed a foot away from the microphone. There was a lot of heckling from the back which was largely unintelligible. The hecklers were pogoing on the backs of the crowd by the time I finished. It seemed successful, if exhausting.
There were two nights at Sheffield University with Mud. The Ents Committee transformed the lower refectory, into something resembling a large club. Mud's glittering backdrop topped this off. I did Radio Hallam in the afternoon and played for their darts team against Mud, although my ability at darts is noticeably less than my ability at crochet. When I performed, Mudís Les Gray heckled me through the stage monitors, which was a bit distracting, as the audience were unable to hear what he said. The band put on a very entertaining show.
Pye deleted His greatest hit. They asked would I like any? I said I wouldn't mind a box (25). They provided 1,500. Barrie Barlow had asked Richard Digance and me to play at his local pub each Christmas, to benefit the village old folks' home. Barrie would invite his musician mates who, like the villagers, paid to get in but also contributed an album to the raffle. This year, ninth prize was a copy of His greatest hit and tenth prize was a whole box of them. Everyone there got one too and copies circulated for autographs. I wondered what George Harrison, Mick Ralphs, Ian Paice, and Barrie's Tull mates made of signing my vinyl misnomer. Barrie always entered the spirit of the occasion. He gave me a 'nail through the head' to wear and offered his blue satin Jethro Tull stage suit (or rather the jacket, because he's not as tall as me), but I declined - the nail was ok, but I didn't want to look stupid.
To continue to promote Rudolph, I did Southern Television's Saturday Banana with Roy Hudd. He kept us all laughing over breakfast in Debenham's beforehand. The kids voted for Rudolph to be pulverised in a machine devised by Roger Ruskin Spear.
I did a pleasant three hour radio programme on song lyrics, with Alexis Korner, Peter Clayton and Al Matthews, hit singer and DJ. Cocooned in a studio near Westminster Abbey, the small, wiry and charming Alexis smoked exotic roll-ups. I wondered what effect the haze would have on me. Al was a genial, black American giant and Vietnam veteran. I'd met him some years before, when he appeared at The Chequers. At one point in the programme, the name of John Betjeman came up and I mentioned to Alexis the "Five o'clock club", which he did with Duffy Power in the early 60's. Betjeman was a guest and demonstrated the 'Hiawatha' rhythm, by speaking in it. Suddenly, Alexis and Duffy picked up the rhythm and played along. It seemed very spontaneous and pre-dated Betjemanís other experiments with music. During a drink with Alexis afterwards, he advised me to turn professional, but I thought I had better wait until I had a hit record behind me. This seemed unlikely in the near future, with Pye's prevarication and the failure of Hit.
In early 1979 Pye released a compromise album Wivabandon Oneezone" (NSPL 18598). It was to be one side of studio tracks, the other from the "live" Brighton date mentioned above. Pye's idea for the cover design to represent Oneezone was for me to mimick Nipper, the HMV dog - the things you'll do to get a record out. The response they came up with to my idea of an old band photo ("Wivabandon" - geddit?) on which to superimpose my head, was Louis Armstrong's Hot Five. This seemed sacrilegious, but I agreed to be Harry Reser with his Syncopators, not that Harry had done anything to deserve that. On the contrary, his "I've never seen a straight banana" always makes me smile. As a sop, Pye dangled the prospect of a Nick Lowe-produced album next time. To promote the album, I was to tour major venues with The Enid. I bought a Guild M20 guitar, in the hope that it would stay in tune better under the hot stage lights. I also bought a new second-hand car.
We played a warm up date at Trent Polytechnic. It had one of the strangest acoustics - I could tell a joke then laugh at it when it came back to me on the echo. The tour proper ran the length of the country and began officially in Aberdeen at the Capital. The first night went well and next day I made the scenic drive down the coast through Stonehaven. The sea was blue and like glass. The sun was shining, but it was cold. This was as near as I got to enjoying driving alone. I crossed the two toll bridges across the Rivers Tay and Forth, and arrived in Edinburgh for Bill Torrance's afternoon show on Radio Forth. We also taped an interview for the Tuesday rock show, leaving gaps for my songs to be inserted. It felt strange discussing tracks which the DJ had not yet been able to hear. That night's date in Edinburgh was scrapped, as were subsequent ones in Bradford, Newcastle etc, as a result of a strike by Local Authority workers.
The Scottish radio dates included the Glasgow studios of Radio Clyde and Radio Scotland. However, I found it difficult to say the same things animatedly and spontaneously in four interviews in quick succession. Radio Scotland was an 11 pm interview. While I was waiting, it became clear that the 11pm DJ hadn't turned up, so the one who had just finished a two or three hour stint was having to continue broadcasting. When I met her, she looked ready to fall asleep and was rubbing her face. She welcomed me by telling me that her listeners had voted Rudolph the worst Christmas record ever. I asked if it had been a convincing vote, or was this just by default? I expressed gratitude that the vote was convincing. She asked 'What like is your humour?' then clearly switched off while I gave an anecdote. At the end, there was a deathly silence on her part. Realising it was her turn, she said that, yes, she thought she could hear the engineers laughing in the production booth. I said it was a good job someone was.
Next afternoon at Radio Clyde, I distressed Andy Park, the interviewer, by breathing Victory Vs on him at our shared table. I was worried that the voice might go and it felt important to succeed at the Glasgow Apollo gig that night, as it was close to where Dad's musical career had begun at The Pavilion. Like Glasgow Empire before it, it was known as a difficult venue. Normally, it's good to go onto the stage to get a feel for the place, before sound check. my friend Richard had warned me to skip this. to avoid looking at the auditorium when the lights were up. The walls and stage front (which was eighteen feet high) were a faded and worn and battered black. Richard also warned that the audience was difficult. I asked my aunt not to come in case they gave me a bad time, but I was glad to have my cousin and his girlfriend there. In the event I was very pleased to get an encore and thought about having a T- Shirt done with the message "I played Glasgow Apollo on a Saturday night and survived".
I'd had a friendly interview beforehand in the dressing room with a New Musical Express journalist, Ian MacDonald and his photographer. The NME centre spread next week was an damning indictment of The Enid and their music; I didn't get a mention and didn't know whether to be glad or sorry at this outcome. In fact, there was to be minimal press coverage of the tour.
In worsening weather, it was Manchester Apollo next night; then nearly six hours in a blizzard driving behind a lorry's almost invisible tail lights, over The Pennines to Sheffield City Hall. Because of delays with the equipment, the band wanted to cancel my slot. I negotiated 15 minutes ( that wasnít going to sell many albums!). Bad weather was exacerbated by Local Authority strikes, which meant no road clearing. The newly created Minister for Snow came to Sheffield by helicopter and left. During 4 days there marooned by bad weather and cancelled dates, Richard advised me to pull out of the tour. However, Iíd taken a monthís leave from work for what might be my one shot at a major promotional tour. There were still dates to come in large city cinemas, and theatres with starchy, long-skirted lady stewards, anxious to protect "their" pride and joy from rock and rollís worst excesses. Eventually, I made the very hairy journey southwards for dates at Derby Assembly Rooms and Leicester. With the windscreen wipers battling ineffectively all the way against icing up, "progress" was in second gear, nose to tail traffic on a half-cleared lane of the M1. By now all of us on the tour were suffering one ailment or another.
After Leicester, I had a couple of days at home before a surreal journey to Birmingham Town Hall. I could see the venue all right from flyovers, but kept ending up at West Bromwich. When I asked for directions, people looked perplexed and then asked if I meant The Council House (this had a different connotation where I grew up). Eventually I arrived there so late, that I parked on the forecourt and went in through the front door. Security opened my guitar case and I went straight on stage to my first view of the murals in this fine old auditorium. We moved on to Scarborough Royal Opera House and an almost idyllic drive up the North Sea coast through Bridlington and Filey, with views to my right of the same sunny, calm, blue sea which I had enjoyed seeing further north on my way down from Aberdeen. In Scarborough, I at last saw a display of my album sleeves in a shop.
With all the logic of these tours, our next stop was a full house at Guildford Civic Hall. Stickers and graffiti told us that our dressing rooms at Canterbury Odeon had been occupied by Sham 69 the previous night. There was a route march from the dressing room to the stage, in complete darkness. The road crew created arrows out of silver gaffer tape stuck to the floor, to guide us. We then played Oxford New Theatre where, at last, there was an album sleeve display in the foyer. The theatre had a huge stage resembling an aircraft hangar. That night I had a drink with one of the characters of the tour, Stan from Quarry, the tour promoters. Stan had worked previously with Mott the Hoople and featured in Ian Hunter's Diary of a rock star. He said he was hoping to meet an old friend from the band Mr Big. I asked if it were Ed Carter. It were. Ed was a year below me at school. I used to sing occasionally with the band he had with Ric Parnell on drums (who achieved later glory with Atomic Rooster and later still as the many drummers of Spinal Tap). I hoped to renew Ed's acquaintance that evening. He didn't appear.
We finished with a triumphant gig on 2 March at Hammersmith Odeon (why didn't Pye record that one?). Van Morrison had occupied the dressing rooms the night before. Nick Headon, who by this time was with The Clash, agreed to play sleigh bells with me on Rudolph but, in the event, his band were called to the studio at short notice, to record Capital Radio, I think. In the Odeon foyer was only the second sleeve display of the tour (third if you count the shop in Scarborough). There was a favourable review in Record Mirror.
A week later Pye restructured and "released" me from contract (as we say in the trade). By now Noel Edmonds was using the album's final track Now is the Hour to close his Sunday morning Radio 1 show Ė a record promotion manís dream. Pye were unaware of this. Are we down-hearted? My wife said I should be a librarianCopyright © John Scott Cree 2001, 2005, 2015
Click here for Chapter 11: Namedrops keep falling on my head.
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